TWO YEARS AGO, some friends and I paddled 51 miles of the Los Angeles River, past the back lots of Warner Bros. and Universal studios, past the chemical refineries, and, finally, to within sight of the Queen Mary, the cruise ship turned hotel in Long Beach Harbor. Our course was a ribbon of algae-choked water in a 400-foot-wide, graffiti-lined concrete basin. If you've seen Grease or Terminator 2, you've seen the L.A. River. Its paved riverbed served as the set for a hot-rod race in the former and Schwarzenegger's motorcycle-vs.-big-rig chase in the latter.
We, too, saw vehicles in the river: maintenance trucks removing plastic bags and spray-paint cans. We also saw great blue herons and black-necked stilts, as well as stranger native inhabitants. One guy camping on an island gave me the lowdown on the community of homeless people living there. He was naked. His pet teddy bear, which was pink, floated nearby, tethered to shore. Following our chat I paddled back into the water but was interrupted: A police helicopter hovered overhead, and over the loudspeaker the pilot ordered me to shore.
Paddling the Los Angeles River is illegal because, technically speaking, it's not a river at all but, rather, a "flood-control facility." In the twenties and thirties, it was still a naturally flooding river that ran approximately 50 miles from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach and inundated the city several times. So in 1938 the Army Corps of Engineers paved the channel to move water out of the city as quickly as possible. Which is highly ironic; since then, the city has spent billions piping water in from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River.
Now rain courses into the concrete-lined ditch, which promptly floods—and escaping a flooding L.A. River is like trying to climb the walls of a water slide. Rescues and drownings are not infrequent. As a flood-control facility, it works beautifully. As an ecological habitat and a playground, it's a disaster.
Our expedition aimed to call attention to a 2008 Corps decision that could strip parts of the river of its Clean Water Act protections. The Corps had argued it might not have jurisdiction to prosecute polluters because the river is a nonnavigable waterway—the criteria for a river to be afforded protection under the Clean Water Act. We set out to prove the river's navigability by... navigating it. It was a satire of a river trip, but as with all good satire, it had a point.
In the end, the cops—likely swayed by the documentary film crew trailing us—let us complete our trip. A few weeks later, following a barrage of local news stories, the EPA offered special protections for the L.A. River.
There's more good news, too. In 2007, the city government adopted a $2 billion revitalization master plan, prescribing everything from parkland and bike paths along the river to a rainwater-diversion scheme that would direct runoff into the ground, replenishing the aquifer. The plan will take more than 20 years to implement, but it could eventually mean the swapping of some concrete banks for a vegetation-lined riverbed.
The utopian vision has been slow to develop, due to budget shortages, but last year the city invested $17 million in a six-acre riverside parcel that will join two other recently created parks. "The political will to revitalize the river is there," says Carol Armstrong, the Los Angeles River Master Plan project manager.
If our trip was any indication, the civic will is there, too. As the cops left the bank and our group stepped into our kayaks to continue downstream, the crowd that had gathered above let out a raucous cheer, glad that someone was treating the country's ugliest waterway like, well, a river.